Did pope like the film? Hard to say

Pontiff's endorsement would mean profits for a movie -- if it were true


January 25, 2004|By Tim Rutten | Tim Rutten,Los Angeles Times

A good Hollywood publicity campaign does not stumble over technicalities -- like the truth. Still, it takes a particular sort of chutzpah to put a phony quote in the mouth of Pope John Paul II. But according to the pontiff's longtime secretary and confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwicz, that is precisely what filmmaker Mel Gibson and his company have done as part of the run-up to next month's Ash Wednesday release of The Passion of the Christ.

That film has been a continuing source of controversy, since Gibson adheres to a "traditionalist" sect that has broken with the Catholic Church over the reforms adopted since the Second Vatican Council, including abandonment of the Latin Mass and a complete rejection of any collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ, which is the foundation of Christian anti-Semitism.

The Web site promoting Gibson's film, which is his personal re-creation of the arrest and execution of Jesus, proudly displays a pair of articles -- one by a Reuters correspondent, the other by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan -- in which the pope is said to have watched a tape of the film with Dziwicz, then commented: "It is as it was."

Both Reuters and Noonan were informed of the purported comment by Gibson's producer, Steve McEveety, who along with the film's assistant director, Jan Michelini, met with Dziwicz shortly after he and the pope watched the film. It was during the course of that meeting, they allege, that the archbishop conveyed the pontiff's uncharacteristically Delphic remark. Whatever one thinks of John Paul II, he never has had any trouble making himself clear, and it might have occurred to somebody, somewhere along the line, that "It is as it was" sounds a bit like a screenwriter doing additional dialogue for an Eastern Yoda.

Anyway, word of the screening and the alleged endorsement first surfaced in Daily Variety -- known, of course, for its Vatican connections -- followed quickly by the Reuters report and the Journal column. There matters remained until Sunday, when New York Times Arts & Leisure columnist Frank Rich drew attention to the crass purpose to which an apparently unguarded comment by an aged and ailing pope was being put by Gibson and his Icon production company.

That same day, Dziwicz summoned a correspondent for the Catholic News Service, an arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and denied he ever told McEveety and Michelini that John Paul II ever said such a thing. "That is not true," the archbishop said. "I said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration. I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment but gave no declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves that to others, to experts."

Alan Nierob, a spokesman for Gibson, said Monday that there "was no reason to believe" Archbishop Dziwicz's denial.

Rising anti-Semitism

What's going on?

"The promoters of this film tried to pull a fast one and got caught," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame and a leading American scholar of the papacy.

How often does the papal household bother to intervene in the popular press this way?

"Not often," McBrien said. "But, then, this type of situation rarely happens."

Tuesday, Noonan, among others, raised the question of Dziwicz's timing. "If the pope had never said the words McEveety says he said," she wondered in an e-mail to the New York Daily News, "why wouldn't they have come down on him like a ton of bricks right away?"

Good question.

Actually, in a widely overlooked story circulated by the Catholic News Service on Christmas Eve, two unnamed Vatican officials were quoted as denying the pope had expressed any opinion concerning Gibson's film. Since then, however, the filmmaker's production company has made the alleged papal comment and Noonan's subsequent rhapsody over it the centerpiece of an international publicity campaign.

Rich's Sunday column drew unavoidable attention to the fact that an ailing and, perhaps, unwitting pontiff had been drawn into a divisive commercial exercise by a bunch of Hollywood sharpies out to flog a film.

According to McBrien, the papal household also "may have gotten some flak from bishops and others involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. People may have been asking if the pope really had endorsed the film, because it was creating some problems for Catholics involved in this dialogue. Since Archbishop Dziwicz is the second-most powerful person in the Catholic Church today as the one closest to the pope in every way," the theologian said, "he alone would know authoritatively whether the pope had actually viewed the film and whether he had any comment to make about it."

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